Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray review
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Long before there were computers, there was magic...
Hard to believe, but it’s been 70 years since Walt Disney first released his Technicolor triumph, Fantasia. Still one of his, and the studio’s, most ambitious projects, Fantasia remains a remarkable achievement of animation, sound and art. And now, for this first time on Blu-ray, this Disney classic is with us once more.
With dialogue used sparingly throughout, Fantasia is a collection of eight animated segments, all set to pieces of classical music. Conducted by Brit conductor Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, each segment is introduced by composer and critic Deems Taylor, who explains the narrative, or lack thereof, the music involved, and the images we’re about to explore.
What follows in each segment is nothing short of genius on Disney’s part. Each one is a work of dedication, beauty, and what Disney himself would call ‘pure animation’. Making use of classic pieces Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, The Nutcracker Suite, and Dance of the Hours, Disney takes us on one the most revelatory and beautifully composed pieces of animation ever created.
Dramatic and terrifying, epic and delicate, Fantasia is not so much a film to watch as a film to experience. Save for a few segments or choice scenes, narrative and story hold no weight here. Instead, we’re asked to explore the film on almost a purely sensory level. Don’t think, feel – enjoy the images, and let them take you where they will; the same with the sound, go with it and see what happens – let these things inform your experience. Considered highly avant-garde at the time, the film remains one the most powerful expressions of imagination and innovation, with sight and sound given a whole new resonance and intensity, allowing for some of the most beautiful, and nightmarish, imagery to lighten and darken our impressionable minds.
Of course there are stories here, with one of the most memorable being 'The Sorcerer’s Apprentice'. Everyone’s favourite mouse, Mickey, plays the mischievous apprentice. Too lazy to carry buckets of water from the well to his master’s cauldron, he begins meddling with magic he shouldn’t by bringing a mop to life, equipping it with arms and instructing it to carry the buckets for him.
All very good, but falling asleep for a nap, Mickey drifts off into a dream, unaware his creation is unable to stop the task at hand, bringing more and more water to the cauldron and causing something of a flood. Mickey wakes and destroys the problematic mop, only for its shattered pieces to become individual mops themselves, forming an army and continuing the task at hand. One of Disney’s most wonderful Mickey Mouse adventures, the story is actually based on Goethe’s poem, Der Zauberlehrling (1797) and features one of the most violent Disney scenes of all times. Axe in hand, seems Mickey’s got something of a vicious streak when it comes to magic mops that don’t follow orders.
"Fantasia was, and is, a landmark for animation"
Scary as that scene may be, it’s nothing compared to the horror reserved for Fantasia’s final act – 'Night on Bald Mountain'/ 'Ave Maria'. This last piece has to be some of the most frightening animation ever created by Disney, and it’s surprising how much power and intensity the horror is given here. Animated by Bill Tytla and his unit, 'Night on Bald Mountain'/ 'Ave Maria' tells the tale of the nocturnal demon Chernabog. A terrifying depiction, Chernabog sits atop Bald Mountain, summoning restless souls, witches, demons, ghosts and skeletons, only for the procession of evil to come to an abrupt end by the sound of a church bell. The music then changes to Ave Maria, with the camera following a line of robed monks, walking through the forest and signalling the dawn, banishing Chernabog and his followers into hiding. Truly one of the most effective, compelling and inspired depictions of good vs. evil ever demonstrated in an animated feature.
Following uncle Walt’s direction, Fantasia was the third feature-length animation by Disney studios (the previous two being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio) and would prove to be one of its most memorable. Introducing the world to 'Fanatasound' and some of the most daring and theatrical animations ever, Fantasia was, and is, a landmark for animation. Finally giving animation the artistic credibility it so deserved, Fantasia is often considered to be Walt Disney’s magnum opus. After this new viewing, with spectacular Blu-ray high definition, restored sound and picture quality, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Amazingly, there’s more to this release than just the main feature. The double-pack also includes Roy E. Disney’s (Walt’s nephew) follow-up, Fantasia 2000. Now, while this is by no means as groundbreaking or magical as its predecessor, it is a rewarding and worthwhile watch. The format and idea are the same, with the ambition and beauty matching those of the 1940 release. There is a lack of intensity perhaps, and maybe even originality, but Fantasia is probably the hardest of acts to follow in animation, and praise indeed for anyone who even attempts to match it, let alone better it. Better to see Fantasia 2000 as more of a tribute to the original than a sequel, though I’m sure it would claim otherwise.
One interesting aspect is the continual change of presenters introducing each segment. Instead of the singular Deems Taylor guiding us through, we’re treated to Steve Martin, Quincy Jones, James Earl Jones, Bette Midler and others. And instead of Leopold Stokowski guiding us on the musical journey, this time it’s James Levine conducting the score. It’s all good fun, and does nothing to diminish the beauty and wonder we’ve come to expect from Disney; it’s just lacking that bit of extra magic the first Fantasia was able to capture.
All that being said, and with brilliant main features aside, the real gem to be found in this already glittering release is in the extras. Among the Blu-ray bonus features are audio commentaries with Disney historian Brian Sibley, Roy E. Disney, conductor James Levine and producer Don Ernst; a Roy Disney Tribute; Disney Family Museum (with Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney-Miller); Disney View (a mode to maximise the viewing experience on Blu-ray); plus an Interactive Art Gallery and Screensavers. And that’s only the Fantasia bonus disc.
It’s when we get to Fantasia 2000’s bonus disc that we find the real treasure. We’re talking of course about Destino, the Walt Disney/Salvador Dali short film collaboration. Words alone cannot do justice to what an incredible work of art this 7-minute animation truly is. Combining the wonder and beauty of Disney’s animation with the surreal and haunting imagery of Dali’s most fantastic paintings was ambitious enough, but the two go even further by delivering one of the most breathtaking pieces of film and expressions of imagination ever.
Believe it or not there is a narrative to be found among the obscure imagery and extravagant ideas proposed, by Dali in particular, and it’s an enthralling one. An incredible love story, Destino tells the story of Chronos and his love for a mortal female, heartbreaking stuff once you get a grasp on it.
Storyboarded by studio artist John Hench and Dali, the film was almost forgotten, never to be realised and left to gather dust in the Disney archives… until 2003, when the artwork and storyboards were discovered and the decision was made to finally make one of the most talked about films in animation history. The result is one worth watching again and again, and a film that can’t help being marvelled at more and more with each viewing.
Accompanying this is a companion documentary, Dali & Disney: A Date with Destino. Interesting and well-made, the documentary follows the lives of both men from very young ages, exploring their love and discovery of art, their careers and achievements, and then their collaboration on Destino itself, its subsequent scrapping (due to a lack of funding after World War II), their relationship, and the mutual admiration and respect they held for one another. It’s a bit long-winded and can drag at times, but the documentary is worthwhile and provides a fascinating insight into the lives and talents of these two incredibly imaginative men.
What more can be said about this release? Not much, as most of it’s in the viewing anyway. Breathtaking and inspirational, entertaining and educational, this release of Fantasia would have done Walt Disney himself proud and provides a more than a fitting testament to his legacy and vision of what animation can and should be. It’s not hard to see why, in 1990, Fantasia was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant‘. I think that sums it up best.
TITLE: Fantasia & Fantasia 2000: Two Movie Collection Special Edition
Number of discs: 2
Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 [Blu-ray] is out now
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